Keith Moon: 1947-1978

The Who drummer was found dead in his home of an apparent overdose

keith moon different drummer
Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Keith Moon
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LONDON — Keith Moon died before he got old. The Who's spark-plug drummer, who turned thirty-one on August 23rd, was found dead in the bedroom of his Mayfair flat on September 7th by his fiancé, Annette Walter-Lax, a Swedish actress.

According to the autopsy, death was caused by an overdose of the prescription sedative Haminevrin.

Although the official inquest hasn't been completed, Moon's friends rejected the possibility of suicide. "He loved life too much," said bassist John Entwistle. Roger Daltrey thought the overdose typical of Moon's excesses. "I've seen him take twenty-five leapers [amphetamines] and then drink a bottle of brandy many times," he said. Both said that although Moon was concerned with his weight – he'd gained nearly twenty pounds – he had been in good spirits recently.

Keith Moon: One-Man Wrecking Crew

It was, in any event, an uncharacteristically passive end for one of rock's most flamboyant figures. When publicist Keith Altham said that "if Keith wanted to kill himself, he'd get in a sports car and drive through a brick wall," it wasn't a metaphor. In a way, his death was more traumatizing because of its peacefulness.

His death abounded in ironies. September 7th is Buddy Holly's birthday, and Moon had celebrated it the night before at a party thrown by Paul McCartney (who publishes Holly's music) at London's fashionable Peppermint Park restaurant before going on to a screening of The Buddy Holly Story. Other guests included David Frost and Eric Clapton. Frost, who sat near Moon, said Keith seemed "tremendously relaxed and content."

After the screening. Moon and Annette went to a nightclub and returned home about four a.m. They rose for an early breakfast, then Moon went back to bed, where he was discovered around two p.m. Speculation was that he had taken Haminevrin both times he bedded down, probably by the handful. Combined with the alcohol consumed the night before, the result was lethal. Still, it wasn't an unusual scenario for Moon. "I think someone looked down and said. 'Okay, that's your ninth life."' Entwistle said.

But Dr. Max Glatt, a leading British medical authority on alcoholism, told the London Sunday Times that Moon should never have been given the drug, which is regarded as highly effective in treating alcoholism and mania (from which Moon suffered). "Haminevrin is widely misunderstood by general practitioners," Glatt said. "It is suitable for a limited period of a few days but should not be used by patients who are not confined to bed."

Moon, of course, was notoriously excessive. His feats of drinking and hotel room demolition are legends. His exploits included nailing all the furniture of a hotel room to the ceiling; using firecrackers to blow up toilet bowls; driving at least one car into a swimming pool; and visiting London pubs with former Bonzo Dog Band member Viv Stanshall, dressed Nazi uniforms. "You'd come offstage and still be buzzin'," Moon said recently. "Then you'd go to a party and it'd get out of hand, get wild. Things get broken. If you're sitting around after a show and there's something you don't like, you just switch it off by throwing a bottle through the screen."

Nonetheless, Keith Moon was among the most creative musicians rock & roll has produced. Born in 1947, he was the youngest member of the Who and the only member that did not grow up in Shepherd's Bush, a working-class area in North London. Instead, he was born in Wembley, near England's largest football stadium. His father was a motor mechanic, his mother a cleaning lady. Moon attended Harrow Tech and became a trainee electrician. Before joining the Who, he played surf music in a semipro band, the Beachcombers.

Moon hooked up with the Who in 1964, after the group's original drummer, Doug Sanden, was kicked out for being overage. Moon's audition concluded with the destruction of a drum kit that had served its previous owner for twenty years.

His untamed style helped shape the Who's powerful style and that of many of the punk and heavy metal bands that followed in their wake. "He made the drums sing," Entwistle noted. "He played every instrument in the band along with us. His breaks were melodic, because he tried to play with everyone in the band at once."

Roger Daltrey, sitting in the editing room after viewing the Who's first film, The Kids Are Alright, was clearly distraught. His normal edgy, energetic manner was' subdued, and his huge blue eyes glistened with something other than their usual excitement. "It's the end of an era," Daltrey said quietly. And then with determination: "He was the most original drummer in rock. We could never replace him because we've never met anyone like him before."

The Who announced on September 8th, after daylong meetings at their Shepperton Films studio, that the band would continue under the same name. "We are more determined than ever to carry on," Pete Townshend said in a written statement, "and we want the spirit of the group to which Keith contributed so much to go on, although no human being can ever take his place."

Daltrey, ordinarily the most decisive member of the band, kept up his front for a while. But as he sat down to look at some animated footage of the group's 1974 Quadrophenia tour, he suddenly looked at me and asked: "What do you think the fans want us to do?" It fit with the other things he said: that he wasn't sure if everyone would feel like continuing in a couple of months, that the Who wasn't just four people, "it's more like 4 billion – or more realistically, 4 million, if you count our fans."

Keith Moon: Different Drummer

But in a way, Moon's death opened the door for the Who to do things it could never attempt before. Oddly enough. Moon's specialized skills sometimes limited the group – he does not appear on one track on Who Are You, ironically entitled "Music Must Change," because its 6/8-time signature was not suited to his approach. And while part of the glory of the band was that it had been able to survive for such a long time without personnel changes, the Who's history also forced it to repeat itself, particularly in the stage show.

"In away, it was like a sacrifice," Daltrey said. "We can do anything we want to do now. I have very odd feelings. I feel incredibly strong and at the same time, I feel incredibly fragile."

Manager Bill Curbishley also sees Moon's death as a potential creative opportunity. "Now they can do anything they'd like to do," he said, "and people will accept it." Before there was always the danger that a new approach would be rejected by hard-core fans comparing it to the tried-and-true avenues of the past. "Now," Curbishley points out, "whatever they do will have to be different. My job is really going to be sorting out their options so that they can decide which they want to pursue."

Whatever the band does, no permanent replacement for Moon will be sought. Apparently, the plan is to recruit specific drummers for specific projects. But what the loss of Moon might also mean would be an increase in instrumentation if the Who should do live dates. "We'd need two drummers to replace him," Entwistle said, and he wasn't joking. More likely, the group will add a keyboardist for future concert appearances – if there are any.

Daltrey and Entwistle would both like to tour; Entwistle, in fact, says it's essential. "I suppose playing in the recording studio, you get a reaction from other people sitting there listening," he said. "But I couldn't stand a career without appreciation. Besides, I play fifty times better onstage; as a musician I don't feel fulfilled without playing onstage."

Townshend is apparently still determined to avoid the road, for reasons outlined last issue. In any event, the group has a full slate of projects before it. The Kids Are Alright, the documentary history of the group, is nearly completed; filming has begun for Quadrophenia, based on Townshend's second rock opera: and at least two other films, Daltrey's McVickar and Townshend's and Entwistle's Lifehouse, are in the planning stages. Although Moon left no will, settling his estate will not delay any of these ventures, according to Curbishley.

One of the central ironies of Moon's death is that the response to Who Are You had already assured that it would be their best-received album, commercially speaking, in several years. Since its release August 15th it had already gone Top Ten in both the U.S. and Great Britain, and the title song seems about to become the band's biggest seller.

London was a strange place to be the week after Moon's death. Although his demise made frontpage headlines for several days, it was treated with atypical gentleness even by the tabloids. Journalists seemed more prepared to mourn "Moon the Loon," as they call him, than to exploit another rock drug overdose. (Ironically, again, the paper with the most sensitive obituary, the Guardian, also ran the most exploitative "rock drug death" sidebar.) But the treatment was gentle for a reason: Moon was a sort of national hero in Britain, one of that country's long line of eccentrics who are loved for their excesses rather than in spite of them. Several people told me that their mothers were among the most upset at the news of Moon's death. His contributions to rock, in that sense, are overshadowed by his accomplishments as a comedian. "He was an institution," Daltrey said passionately, and then in a spirit Keith might have appreciated: "He should have been nationalized."

London's rock community greeted the news of his death with a mixture of fatalism and disbelief. Given Moon's lifestyle, the fatalism was predictable. But on September 9th, backstage at the Knebworth pop festival, disbelief was predominant. The only mention of Moon onstage came from an American group, the Tubes, who closed their show with a medley of Who numbers. Elsewhere, the same story held: the only other onstage dedication to Moon came from Clement Burke, drummer for Blondie, another American act. Burke kicked over his kit at the end of the show Saturday night, saying, "That's for Keith Moon, the greatest drummer in the world."

The greatest impact of Moon's death was on the Who as individuals. Although the band is famous for its internal spats and fistfights, and all the members claim to feel little social obligation to one another, all were clearly deeply disturbed by the loss. Both Daltrey and Entwistle referred to Moon as a "brother." When I saw Pete Townshend briefly September 12th, five days after the shock, he was still bleary eyed.

"We all feel very weird: Keith has always appeared so close to blowing himself up in the past that we've become used to living with the feeling," Townshend said in his statement. "But this time, Keith hasn't survived, he hasn't come round, he hasn't thrown himself off the balcony and landed in one piece."

Entwistle's reaction was the strongest; he was perhaps the closest of all to Moon, and for years in the early days, they shared hotel rooms on the road. "At first, when Pete called to tell me, I thought it was some elaborate joke," he said. "I was halfway through an interview with some Irish press people when the bulletin came on the radio, and then I knew it was true. But it didn't sink in until a couple of days later, when I spoke to his mother and Annette.

"But I also felt really angry that it happened in that way – a stupid accident. The last few weeks, Keith seemed really happy again. I'd seen him the week before, when he came in to do a few cymbal splashes for the Quadrophenia soundtrack, and we had a few laughs."

Indeed, as Moon said last issue, he felt that the Who's increased productivity gave him new direction. Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle all have outside projects and they all have families. Moon had made a solo album, Two Sides of the Moon, in 1974, but most of his work outside the Who consisted of small parts in movies. In addition to his role as Uncle Ernie in Tommy, Moon appeared as a flying nun in Frank Zappa's 200 Motels, in David Essex's rock films That'll Be the Day and Stardust, and in Mae West's unreleased Sextette (he played a dress designer). But since the breakup of his marriage in 1975, Moon really only had the Who. Perhaps as a consequence, Entwistle points out, "He enjoyed the side of the rock business the rest of us shy away from in favor of homelife. There was no balance for him between the rock business and reality."

Estranged from his wife, Kim, and daughter, Mandy (now thirteen), Moon moved to California in 1976. There, he said last August, he had done very little but "play pool at Ringo's house, go in the ocean for a swim and go down to the clubs at night." He played a few sessions for producer Steve Cropper and made some solo demos. But without the Who, his life had no real center. He had to be hospitalized several times in recent years. Keith Altham remembers visiting Moon in the hospital after one such episode. "I said, 'Keith, don't you think you should take this as a sign that you must slow down?' He just shook his head and said no."

"I think he actually believed himself indestructible," Entwistle noted. "He was quite shocked that he'd broken a few bones over the past few years. I mean, I've seen him tumble down thirty stairs and get up as though nothing had happened and begin a conversation. So when he broke his collarbone, he couldn't quite believe it."

Last spring Moon returned to London, where he sublet Harry Nilsson's flat in the expensive Mayfair district. (Ironically, it is the same apartment where Cass Elliott of the Mamas and Papas died in 1974.) He had worked on the completion of Who Are You and taken on duties as public-relations director of Shepperton. "He sort of knew that it was a way for the others to help him out," said Jeff Stein, the young American director of The Kids Are Alright. "But he also knew it was something that he could really do."

Stein and his crew remember Moon with fond hilarity. He spent a great deal of time in their editing room. On the wall hangs a picture of his last visit: Moon had come by to help edit the film. He is posed with one hand around Stein's throat, bending him over the editing table. In the other hand is a hatchet.

Keith Moon Bites Back

"He came in right after he'd taken the publicity job, wearing a very straight suit," Stein recalled. "And he said, 'Hello, my friends. Everyone working hard?' But after a couple of hours he was back being the old Moon." Yet Moon was serious about his role, putting together biographies of the crew, and on a recent trip to Mauritius, he spent time with figures in the Indian film industry discussing the possibility of their using Shepperton studio.

"We knew three different people," Entwistle said. "There was the straight, normal Moon, the belligerent, posh-voiced Moon, and the completely unreasonable maniac – the one who argued in circles. You could usually tell by his first sentence. But I saw a lot more of the nice Keith Moon in the last few months."

Part of Moon's problem may have had to do with the fact that was younger than the others in the band. This had led some to feel that an old Moon was unimaginable. "He was like a brother," Daltrey says. "But I could never imagine him getting old. That would have been cruel in itself."

But Entwistle doesn't see it that way. "I could imagine him getting old. He looked as though he was going to grow into sort of a W.C. Fields character." True enough – had he lived, Moon's next acting project would have been the role of prophet in Monty Python's next film, Brian of Nazareth.

In a way, maybe that is what Keith Moon really was. Both in terms of his drumming style and his way of life, he set an early pattern for the outrages of rock, though few played the role with as much humor as he did. And, as he was careful to point out in our interview last month, no one ever got hurt in his escapades: "It's always been taken out on objects. Things that can be replaced."

No one ever got hurt, that is, except Keith Moon. He should have been wealthy when he died, but that's unlikely. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on hotel room damages alone; it is symptomatic that he left no will. Planning for the future just wasn't his style.

Stated Townshend: "I've always complained that up till now when I've walked into a pub, someone has slid next to me, nudged me and said, "Ere, that Keith Moon, what's he really like? For the first time in my life, I will know what to answer – I wish I didn't."

Moon's body was cremated Monday, September 11th. A small funeral ceremony for family, band members and a few close associates was held on Wednesday, when the ashes were interred. But Curbishley and Altham indicated that a larger memorial – perhaps a concert – might be held in the following few weeks. It could hardly fail to be appropriate. Somber endings weren't Moon's style.

This story is from the October 19th, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 276: October 19, 1978